Let's Be Honest, Episode 24: Carbon Offsetting

Let’s be honest is a Food Circle project to open up the conversation about the challenges when being or becoming a member of the SC (Sustainability Club). This series will shine a light on the different approaches to making life more sustainable and the step-backs and difficulties that arise. Being more kind and understanding, instead of critical, will hopefully help to encourage us to try instead of giving up when facing a step-back or failure. This is made possible thanks to Sapient, the mother company of Food Circle, which every year offers internships to students from all around the world, creating a uniquely multicultural environment.


Let’s celebrate the achievements and give room for honesty and struggles!



What is Carbon Offsetting?


If you’ve ever booked a flight, you’ve probably seen a little check box that claims will be able to make up for the environmental damage you’re about to cause; to ‘offset’ the carbon emitted through your activity. Carbon offsetting has been a prevalent part of the sustainability lingo for the past two decades. Simply put, it is the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, or other greenhouse gases, in order to counterbalance emissions made somewhere else in the world. A common method of this is afforesting or reforesting an area to compensate for these emissions. But does this actually measure up? And how effective is it? To answer these questions, we have to dive into the history of carbon offsets as well as look into how the projects are being managed.


Carbon offsetting started gaining popularity in 1997 with the UNFCCC adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for economies to limit or decrease their GHG emissions [1]. Since then, different countries and corporations began to endorse policies and examine the options to reach climate goals. In 2006, Sky Media was the first media company to go carbon neutral, and it maintains to be so today [2]. Google has followed suit and also became carbon neutral in 2007, while aiming to become carbon free by the year 2030 [3]. BP famously claims to want to reach net zero by the year 2050, and is involved in over 100 carbon offset projects worldwide [4].*


Types of Offsets


There are different ways a company can offset its carbon emissions. As mentioned, foresting a land is a popular approach because trees are well-known to be good carbon absorbers. Additionally, some of the carbon offset money also goes to protecting existing forests. Another way is by funding projects that develop renewable energy. For example, the project Rural Education for Development Society (REDS) has introduced Photovoltaic lamps in 60,000 homes in rural India in 2009 and has offset a median of 55 metric tons of CO2 emissions in 2013. Capturing and destroying greenhouse gases is yet another way of combating emissions. This method focuses on potent gases, such as methane and nitrous oxide, as they are more effective than carbon at trapping heat in the atmosphere. These gases are emitted through landfills, animal agriculture, coal mines, and gas and oil systems to name a few. The idea is to seize the greenhouse gases right at the source and either store, destroy, or use them to generate electricity [5].


Criticism


While compensating for the CO2 equivalent elsewhere sounds like a good deal on the surface, there are some underlying problems that we, as consumers, might be unaware of. For one thing, it is difficult for us to ensure that our money and efforts actually contribute to developing offsetting projects. More often than not, there is a lack of transparency when it comes to how these projects are managed and some do not provide updates regarding their outcomes. In fact, around 75% of the carbon credits have not shown promising results, as reported in a 2015 study [6]. Likewise, 85% of offset projects had little to no effect [7]. Because of this, many companies and offsetting efforts in general have been accused of greenwashing; buying carbon credits and funding scant projects for performative reasons rather than striving for real climate change action.


Action


Responsibility must ideally be taken by those who emit large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and while many corporations are working towards carbon neutrality, there are some ways in which we can augment our knowledge on this matter. Awareness, in this case, is key. Before agreeing to offset your own carbon emissions, try looking into where the company is spending the offset money. If it is not regularly updated, is described in vague statements, or suspiciously cheap, then it is probably not a good bet. Furthermore, you could inquire into climate change groups that are clear on their goals. Organizations such as Go Climate and Wren are a few examples of associations that offer transparency with the projects that they develop and which you could help fund, keeping track of and updating you with the progress.


In conclusion, if handled correctly, carbon offsets can be one of the promising methods to deal with the large amount of GHG emissions produced worldwide. Still, reducing carbon emissions, rather than compensating for them, should be the top priority of countries, economies, corporations, and individuals, as no amount of offsetting projects could overrule the tons of emissions spewed into the air.



*However, BP decided on September 2021 not to rely on these projects to reach their emissions goals. Instead, BP wants to address these goals by reconstructing the company and shifting its focus to cleaner energy.


Author: Rima Qayed


 

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References


  1. What is the Kyoto Protocol? | UNFCCC

  2. How Sky has become carbon neutral

  3. Sustainability | Google Cloud

  4. BP sets ambition for net zero by 2050, fundamentally changing organisation to deliver | News and insights | Home

  5. Carbon Offset Projects - Carbon Offset Guide

  6. SEI-WP-2015-07-JI-lessons-for-carbon-mechs.pdf

  7. An (Even More) Inconvenient Truth (propublica.org)

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